Tiny Bubbles

Today my nine year old daughter told me that the worst day of her life would be if the Lawrence Welk Show was discontinued.  She inherited her quirky personality from her parents.  What she really enjoys is making fun of the costumes and corny acts with her father.  They egg each other on.  But the show is a testament to the clean cut, homespun  mentality of many families in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  It actually went on the air in 1955 and lasted all the way to 1982.  And of course, like so many other iconic cultural events, had a strong tie to Pittsburgh.

The William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh was the place where Champagne Music was born, according to Lawrence Welk himself.  The term “Champagne Music” was derived from an engagement at the hotel, which has since been renamed The Omni William Penn.  The term supposedly caught on when a dancer referred to this band’s sound as “light and bubbly as champagne.” This planted a seed of genius in a hotel employee who decided to activate a “bubble machine” from a prop left over from a 1920s movie premiere and history was made.  Welk described his band’s sound, saying “We still play music with the champagne style, which means light and rhythmic. We place the stress on melody; the chords are played pretty much the way the composer wrote them. We play with a steady beat so that dancers can follow it.

He must have known what he was doing because his show is still watched weekly by millions of nostalgic viewers and Pittsburgh continues to attract some of the finest musicians in the world.

Friends in High Places

It is really helpful in life to have friends in high places, as in high IQ’s.  I had the privilege and honor to work with Luis Von Ahn in the renowned computer science department at Carnegie Mellon.  You know his work if you have ever bought a concert ticket online.  His reCAPTCHA invention was created to prevent computer automated purchases of mass tickets.  In 2007, at the height of Miley Cyrus/Hanna Montana fame, tickets to the Pittsburgh concert were sold out in minutes on Ticketmaster.  I remember checking into these tickets and saw prices ranging from $500-$2000.  I knew she was popular but this was nuts.  This same scenario took place in multiple cities.  The original tickets priced between $60-$200 were bought by a computer generated program and resold at ridiculously inflated prices.  The sad thing is that people actually bought these tickets and the culprit was never caught.  So anytime you get frustrated by typing in that word you have decipher – realize it is to insure that you are a real thinking breathing person.  One thing a computer cannot do is think or decipher.  Turing test devotees may beg to differ but that is another argument entirely.  CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.

But preventing computerized theft along with spam is just the tip of the ice berg for Luis.  He has a grand plan to solve world problems by combining the thought processes of millions of people collectively and it’s working splendidly.  Each time you solve a reCAPTCHA you are helping decipher text for physical books being digitized that were written before the computer age.  About 200 million CAPTCHAs are being solved by humans around the world every day.  Even though that works out to only ten seconds per person, it equals 150,000 hours of work each day.

Luis’s latest project is called Duolingo.  It is a free service for people wanting to learn a new language (French, Spanish, German and English) through reading, writing, speaking and listening.  My nine year old daughter is using it to learn Spanish while translating the internet to Spanish.  How cool is that.  By Duolingo’s estimate, one million people could translate all four million-plus English Wikipedia pages to Spanish in 80 hours.  All for free.

Not only is Luis a genius.  He is generous.